Archive for Books & Films

Sue Terry’s review of Chris Hill’s book was much too kind

Terry’s review isn’t what I’d call favorable, and Terry is a much kinder soul than I am, but it seems too kind to call Hill “one of the most successful diplomats of his generation.”

Sure, Hill was one of his generation’s most successful careerists, but as a diplomat, he may have been the greatest human wrecking ball in modern American diplomacy.

What I’m really waiting for is a critical appraisal of Hill’s IKEA writing style.

4th Annual North Korean Human Rights International Film Festival

4th NHIFF banner

NKnet is hosting its 4th annual North Korean Human Rights International Film Festival this coming Friday and Saturday, September 26-27, in Gwanghwamun, Seoul.

This year there are 14 films from Korea, the US, and Saudi Arabia, and two of the films received financial support from the festival:

poster: November 9th
November 9th
100 min. – Korea – documentary – no English subtitles
Directed by: Kim Gyu-Min (the director of Winter Butterfly, which played at the first NHIFF in 2011)
Category: Reunification of the Korean Peninsula
*Following the film, there will be a conversation with the director, who is originally from North Korea (interpretation not available).

Synopsis:

10 hours from now, the ceasefire line will collapse and the Korean peninsula will be reunified.

On Thursday, November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall – symbolizing the division of Germany – fell. It wasn’t through an agreement of the East and West German governments that it happened on that day. Nor were East or West German academics or anyone else from around the world for that matter able to foresee the wall would come down on November 9, 1989. A year later Germany was reunified for the first time in 41 years through the votes of the East and West German citizenry in free elections.

– What might transpire if November 9 were to come to the Korean peninsula?
– How much have we prepared for a Korean 11/9?
– In preparing for a Korean 11/9, what are the things we must do first?
– Is there any way to know what will happen on 11/10 and beyond?


movie photo: The Threshold of Death
The Threshold of Death
115 min. – Korea – English subtitles
Directed by: Lee Eun Sang
Category: Refugees & Resettlement
* will be featured at the opening ceremony

Synopsis:

Dong-jin works at the immigration office uncovering illegal immigrants. His relationship with his father, who has Alzheimer’s disease, is one of obligation, and things are awkward between his younger brother, Dong-seok, and the family.

Coworker Nam-il regularly uses his position to commit corruption, while Dong-jin’s youngest sibling Eun-sung is led by compassion and unable to be cold-hearted. Unable to build relationships with those around him in his lonely daily life, Dong-jin finds himself favorably inclined toward Yeon-hwa, a Chinese-Korean singer he met at noraebang (a singing room).

When she suddenly receives a call from a broker who is guiding her niece, Soon-bok (who has escaped from North Korea), things fall into disarray. Seeing Yeon-hwa’s difficult situation and Soon-bok’s purity and will to live, Dong-jin starts to change little by little from his cold ways. [SPOILER ALERT - stop reading here if you plan to see the film] In the wake of his weak father’s death and then Yeon-hwa’s suicide, Dong-jin works hard to find Soon-bok.

All of this amounts to nothing as his coworker Nam-il tries to shift the blame for his corrupt dealings to Dong-jin and his sister Eun-sung betrays him in order to protect the family. Having lost everything, Dong-jin is left alone only with his sad reality and desire to see Soon-bok.


For more complete information about the festival, please visit NKnet’s website, where I’ve put up lots of trailers, photos, film schedule and descriptions, how to RSVP, directions, reviews, subtitle info, the program for the opening ceremony, etc.

For Facebookers, there’s an event page for the festival and an event page for the opening ceremony.

Dan Bielefeld

Adam Johnson: “Everyone who deals with them eventually gets burned.”

Somewhere, the world’s smallest violin is playing a Samuel Barber adagio for Walter Keats, who whines, not about the North Koreans who shut down his tour business after he spent years coddling and enriching them, but about Adam Johnson for writing a Pulitzer Prize winning novel:

Between 2006 and 2012, Walter Keats led dozens of tours as president of Asia Pacific Travel. By 2012, after building trust with North Korean officials, Keats and his wife were permitted to lead groups year-round.

Then, without explanation, Keats and his wife were denied entry. He believes his blacklisting was punishment for organizing a tour for Adam Johnson, a professor of creative writing at Stanford University who was doing research for “The Orphan Master’s Son,” a novel set in North Korea that was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The book contains an irreverent portrayal of the late leader Kim Jong Il, which may have upset the North Korean government.

“The way the [North Korean] system works, somebody has to get punished for any kind of transgression that takes place,” Keats said.

Johnson said he has no way of knowing whether his novel was the cause of Keats’ banishment. “I truly hope not. From my sense of it, everyone who deals with them eventually gets burned,” he said in an email. [L.A. Times, Steven Borowiec]

For Keats to blame Adam Johnson for ruining his tour business is like blaming Harriet Beecher Stowe for driving up the price of cotton. Surely Keats does not mean to suggest that his clients should submit to the permanent, extraterritorial jurisdiction of North Korean censorship to protect his profits. Come of think of it, that could be the premise for another half-decent book.

Perhaps unintentionally, Johnson does suggest one potentially effective strategy for sabotaging the North Korea slumming industry. The plan isn’t without its flaws. Not only does a talented writer have to travel to North Korea, but he also has to come back to write about it.

Tonight, on The John Batchelor Show, Bruce Bechtol will discuss North Korea’s …

terrorism, proliferation, and policy responses to both.

Bechtol, as you recall, testified as an expert in the Kaplan v. DPRK case that found North Korea liable for sponsoring the Hezbollah rocket attacks that injured the civilian plaintiffs. Judge Lamberth cited both Bechtol’s testimony and his book, The Last Days of Kim Jong Il, in his Memorandum Opinion.

The interview will air at 11:15 p.m. Eastern Time in Washington, and at other times in other areas, on this station. You can also listen to recorded broadcasts of the show here, which you should, for another good reason — Gordon Chang often co-hosts the show.

I don’t care for most talk radio, frankly, but Batchelor’s show is always intelligent, always has insightful guests, and never harangues. You may or may not agree with its perspective, in the same way that I don’t agree with NPR’s perspective, but still find its content redeeming. Batchelor’s show is NPR for conservatives, only without the government funding.

I love watching North Korean refugees emerging as a cultural force …

to inform the world about life, such as it was, in their homeland. The South China Morning Post covers a North Korean human rights film festival in Hong Kong, and The Washington Post’s new Seoul correspondent, Anna Fifield, covers a young North Korean rapper who doesn’t quite share my taste in music, but does share my outlook about food distribution north of the no-smile line.

First as tragedy, then as farce

The story I linked Monday about Michael Kirby’s comments spurring the U.N. to action in North Korea eventually grew into two posts, because in the same story, Kirby also warned against trivializing what’s happening in North Korea.

The Commission of Inquiry, which reported to the UN in March, detailed horrific abuses of human rights in North Korea, including starving political prisoners reduced to eating grass and rodents in secret gulags, schoolchildren made to watch firing squad executions, and women forced to drown their own babies to uphold racial purity laws.

Justice Kirby compared the actions of the North Korean regime to a modern-day Holocaust, and he warned against treating North Korea as a quirky, oddball regime.

“Please do not think North Korea is a cuddly, cute sort of a case, with a leader with a bad haircut who is nonetheless loveable and is going to go in the right direction because he’s a young man. This is not a situation where a young person is going to bring a new broom, if his is a new broom it is a violent new broom. Things have not improved.”

I suppose Justice Kirby was talking about films like “The Interview” and the Dennis Rodman parody “Diplomats,” neither of which I’ve seen. Based on the description of the plot premise, it’s clear to me that “Diplomats” is too stupid to have much redeeming artistic merit, and will almost certainly trivialize a terrible tragedy. It deserves, frankly, to be the object of a boycott, but as North Korea has learned, protests like these often backfire — just like Dennis Rodman’s birthday serenade did. The learner’s-permit demographic that films like “Diplomats” target are unmoved by moral and philosophical arguments, and by standards of taste.

If you filled a thimble with everything Dennis Rodman knew about North Korea last year, there would still be room for everything Dennis Rodman remembers about North Korea this year. Rodman has suggested, probably seriously, that he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for his addlebrained adventures in North Korea. Most people dismissed this as farce, but to be fair, Rodman may (however inadvertently) have done as much to bring Pyongyang’s crimes against humanity into the global consciousness as Kirby’s carefully documented report.

That is both good and a sad comment on the state of our media and human rights watchdogs today. The sadder comment is that no watchdog, no global law-giver, no son of Korea in any position of global leadership, and no Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader of any nation, indispensable or otherwise, has lifted more than a token finger to press for action on the findings of the COI’s report, so far. The people of North Korea have been forgotten for decades. All indications are that in September, the General Assembly will send Justice Kirby’s report to the Security Council. All indications also suggest that after 48 hours of page four news, the U.N. will have forgotten it by the end of October.

My expectations for “The Interview” are almost as low. “The Interview,” however, benefits from much promotional assistance from the North Korean government. With its impeccable talent for irony, North Korea’s official “news” service, KCNA, printed a statement by the Foreign Ministry that called the film “terrorism,” accused the United States of “bribing a rogue movie maker to dare hurt the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK,” and threatened “to mercilessly destroy anyone who dares hurt or attack the supreme leadership of the country even a bit.” It concluded, “Those who defamed our supreme leadership and committed the hostile acts against the DPRK can never escape the stern punishment to be meted out according to a law wherever they might be in the world.”

North Korea was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. KCNA and the Associated Press signed two still-undisclosed memoranda of agreement in 2011, under which they agreed to cooperate in their reporting of “news” from North Korea.

Thankfully, Pyongyang still hasn’t learned that the best way to censor speech in America is violence — say, summoning mobs into the streets, sacking our embassies, and killing our diplomats. Do that, and our President will go on TV to apologize to the mobs for the very existence of free speech, we’ll jail the heretics who offend you, and our own government will be your vicarious censor. (This is the real Benghazi scandal — and the Republicans can’t see that.)

As with the U.N.’s greater interest in objectively lesser crises, parodies of North Korea also raise the question of double standards. Can you imagine someone making a spoof film about Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or even Gaza? (Not that anyone should.) How many decades passed before a film like “Inglorious Basterds” could be made?

This isn’t to say that North Korea shouldn’t be parodied (it should be), or even that the parodies must be tasteful (the good ones seldom are). What I suppose I am saying is that artistic judgments are balancing tests that weigh what makes a work distasteful against what makes it important. I struggled with that balance in my judgments of films like “Borat” (very funny and thought-provoking, but even more distasteful) and “Team America” (distasteful, but funny and profanely profound). The moral risks of failing that test are greater if the work’s effect is to blunt our sense of outrage.

The truth, of course, is that Justice Kirby deserves the Nobel Prize, and deserves to be the subject of a serious nomination campaign for both himself and his fellow Commissioners. Perhaps that campaign would give one of our world’s great institutions, or their so-called leaders, a small twinge of responsibility to act.

If, in the end, the world is only capable of answering tragedy with farce, it least it should be good farce. It ought to be better a better farce than “Diplomats,” and diplomats.

Please buy Don Kirk’s new book on Okinawa and Jeju

A few weeks ago, it was my pleasure to meet up with Don Kirk for beers at the Press Club. Don was kind enough to give me a copy of his new book. I’ve only had time to poke through it so far, but it does (as you would expect) a comprehensive job of discussing the politics of military basing on both islands, each with its own history of conflict and controversy.

Providence-20140112-00169

Don asked me to give it a plug, and I’m happy to oblige. Here’s the back cover blurb:

Providence-20140112-00166

For those in the Pentagon, or who are serving in that area with the armed forces, this is something you’ll definitely want to read. It’s awfully expensive in hard cover, so you may want to buy it for your kindle, or use the kindle app (which I liked very much).

“Secret State of North Korea,” on PBS’s Frontline, Tuesday, January 14th

On Tuesday January 14th, PBS’s Frontline will air a one-hour program about the North Korea most foreign journalists aren’t allowed to see: Secret State of North Korea.

Not only are North Koreans illegally smuggling information from inside North Korea out, a growing cohort of defectors are risking their lives to get information about the outside world in.

“Pretty quickly, what surprised me the most wasn’t the poverty and poor conditions people live in—which are, undoubtedly, shocking,” says FRONTLINE director James Jones. “It was the ordinary North Koreans who were standing up to authority.”

And doing so at great risk to themselves. 

That web page includes a brief trailer. You may recognize the footage as the work of the guerrilla cameramen of Asia Press’s Rimjingang. The men who took these images risked their lives to show you what you will see on that program.

For those living in the Washington area, the program airs at 10 p.m. on WETA, channel 26. Here’s a link for a listing in other parts of the U.S.

Upcoming Events: “The Defector” Screenings, and EAHR’s online round table

I’D PREVIOUSLY POSTED ABOUT two new documentaries about how the real North Korea — the one behind the facade — is changing. One of these, The Defector, will be screened this week at two separate events in Washington. If you’re in the area, I hope you can make it.

InsideNK_TheDefector.PremiereDCVA.Poster_UPDATED

I OWE AN APOLOGY to the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea, which asked me to post about their online seminar on advocating for human rights in North Korea, and which I then completely forgot to do. Fortunately, their previous December 2nd event is on YouTube, and a second seminar is coming up next week.
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New documentaries show how N. Korea is changing, despite Kim Jong Un

Two new documentaries on North Korea are promising us brave and original journalism about life in North Korea, as the vast majority of North Koreans somehow live it.

A long-time reader writes to tell me that the Heritage Foundation will be screening a new documentary, “The Defector,” on December 5th, at 5:30 p.m., and that Shin Dong Hyok will be in attendance. Here is how the film’s website describes it:

Dragon is a human smuggler who leads North Korean defectors across borders for a living. His latest undercover trip with Sook-Ja and Yong-hee takes an unexpected turn when they are left stranded in China, putting their dramatic escape plan into question. Their perilous journey reflects the reality of tens of thousands of North Koreans currently in hiding in China. Filmed undercover by a Korean-Canadian filmmaker, Ann Shin gets intimate access with these three individuals in this POV film and explores universal questions about human rights, smuggling and the pursuit of freedom.

The film’s producer is Korean-Canadian Ann Shin, who profiles the film and adds a trailer at this New York Times blog. You can see more here, and a Yahoo News report here. The previews suggest that human traffickers are stepping in to fill the void created by a system of international law that has broken down in the face of China’s intransigence.

There is another new film that I hope readers will help me watch out for — “Life Inside the Secret State,” produced by Jiro Ishimaru, the man behind the guerrilla cameras of Rimjingang. Life Inside the Secret State focuses on the tough North Korean women who are the reluctant agents of broad economic, social, and even political change in North Korea. This post carries a discussion between Ishimaru and Rajiv Narayan of Amnesty International:

“I was genuinely struck by those women…it’s so satisfying to see these individuals [having the] self confidence to stand up to authority. . . . Women for the first time ever are the people who are going to the market and earning a living, so they’ve become the people pushing the boundaries of these changes.”

You can read reviews here, here, and here. If anyone hears word that this film will be screened in the Washington area, kindly drop me a line.

For all the whining I do about dull, uninformative, pretentious minder-guided reporting from Pyongyang, I feel doubly obligated to support journalism and filmmaking that show courage and take real, physical risks to tell us the truth. I hope you’ll seek these films out, see them, tell your friends, and tell me what you thought about them.

Review: Treasury’s War, by Juan Zarate

Let me begin with an apology for the lack of posting lately. While tossing a football around with some friends, I took a direct head-on hit to that finger you need for typing words that contain the letters “l” or an “o,” which turn out to be less dispensable than you might think. The time I didn’t spend typing, I spent reading instead:

Treasury's War cover

[clicking the image takes you to Amazon]

If you want to understand why the Banco Delta Asia action worked so well, how financial sanctions bankrupted al Qaeda, and how they’re bankrupting Iran today, you have to read this book. If you’re reading this site, however, the odds are you’re interested in what Zarate has to say in chapters 9 and 10, where he writes about North Korea, Banco Delta Asia, and Chris Hill.

Zarate, who is usually effusive in his praise for the people he worked with in government, clearly has no use for Hill. Hill comes off looking like a boorish, incompetent asshole who, despite repeated explanations of how Section 311 worked, either didn’t grasp the concept or didn’t care. According to Zarate, Hill’s minions reduced Daniel Glaser to tears by bullying him into simply switching off the section 311 action–and its downstream effects–almost instantly, which is a lot like asking Treasury to instantly give North Korea a new reputation for honest financial dealings with a banking “ecosystem” that’s extremely concerned about reputations and access to correspondent accounts in U.S. banks and dollar-clearing through New York.

Readers of this site already know that I’m no fan of Chris Hill. I’ve written extensively about how Hill played fast and loose with the truth when he sold his deal to Congress in 2007. Two years later, after his deal with Kim Jong Il had collapsed under the weight of its own suspended disbelief, Hill was eventually confirmed as U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, but only after a bitter confirmation fight. After just 16 months in office, Hill retired, having failed to broker a new Iraqi government or to negotiate a suitable status of forces agreement (and you’d think a guy like Hill could have closed a deal if he wanted one badly enough), and with his relations with U.S. military commanders strained.

I’ve already told you that Zarate’s book is indispensable (it’s also a fun read) but I do have two criticisms. First, his treatment of the SWIFT network as sacrosanct, and his implicit criticism of Section 220 of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 reads like a set of SWIFT talking points. Zarate worries about U.S. laws and EU regulations that forced SWIFT to cut off certain Iranian banks, and wonders how far down this slippery slope we’d go to sanction other countries.

I agree that SWIFT should be commended for helping Treasury after 9/11, and that The New York Times shouldn’t have outed SWIFT for doing it. But SWIFT has significant business operations located in the United States, and it derives significant benefits from the security of our country and the health of our financial system. By Zarate’s admission, SWIFT took the actions it took in 2001 because it knew it would not prevail if Treasury served it with subpoenas for financial information. Should SWIFT be forced to stop financial messaging services to every country that gets low marks for human trafficking or anti-money laundering countermeasures? Clearly not. But when some supranational authority demands countermeasures against specific banks known to be involved in proliferation or money laundering, SWIFT shouldn’t be exempt, either, particularly given that by its nature, SWIFT doesn’t know the purpose of the transactions it facilitates. Here’s paragraph 11, from UNSCR 2094:

Decides that Member States shall, in addition to implementing their obligations pursuant to paragraphs 8 (d) and (e) of resolution 1718 (2006), prevent the provision of financial services or the transfer to, through, or from their territory, or to or by their nationals or entities organized under their laws (including branches abroad), or persons or financial institutions in their territory, of any financial or other assets or resources, including bulk cash, that could contribute to the DPRK’s nuclear or ballistic missile programmes, or other activities prohibited by resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), or this resolution, or to the evasion of measures imposed by resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), or this resolution, including by freezing any financial or other assets or resources on their territories or that hereafter come within their territories, or that are subject to their jurisdiction or that hereafter become subject to their jurisdiction, that are associated with such programmes or activities and applying enhanced monitoring to prevent all such transactions in accordance with their national authorities and legislation;

Zarate is otherwise pretty big on enforcing international norms and standards, and to be fair, Zarate’s manuscript was probably already with the publisher when this resolution passed. It’s hard to argue today that North Korean banks that have been specifically sanctioned by the U.N. itself, the EU, or the United States because of “credible information” about their proliferation should continue to receive messaging services without interruption. Maybe Zarate wouldn’t argue that now. I hope he wouldn’t. But even before that, we’d seen a long services of messages about the need for “countermeasures” against North Korea from the Financial Action Task Force.

My second criticism is of the opportunity Zarate misses at the end of his book when he calls for the government to help preserve and enhance our economic power. That’s especially unfortunate when Zarate’s explanation of that power and its importance were so effective. His last chapter and his epilogue introduce a series of important concepts concepts about trade, protectionism, technology, foreign investment, and the strength of the dollar, but unfortunately, and perhaps because of the editing process, those concepts aren’t explained or illustrated well, and I finished the book without understanding how more government intrusion would advance, rather than inhibit, our economic competitiveness. I hope that’s something Zarate will explain further, perhaps in a future edition.

(This chapter still stimulated much thought about other key networks, aside from the financial system, that run through the United States. Could the free flow of information through U.S.-based servers, or a cloud network, be another future power source? How about restricting the access to U.S. ports of cargoes originating from ports that fail to take their counter-proliferation or counter-terrorism responsibilities seriously?)

Treasury’s War won’t win any literary awards, but its simple and clear writing style is probably best for a topic this complex. The information, clear explanations, and illustrative examples make it required reading for any student of economics or foreign policy in this age. If you’re a North Korea watcher or congressional staffer who wants to understand how H.R. 1771 would work, and why its strategy is nothing at all like the old fashioned sanctions used against Saddam Hussein, read Zarate’s book (it’s also available on e-book).

I can’t wait to read this one: “Treasury’s War,” by Juan Zarate

I wonder if Amazon can deliver this while I still have an unexpected windfall of leisure time:

Zarate, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, plays the role of the bureaucrat. He joined the Treasury Department just weeks before the 2001 attacks to aid the agency’s enforcement wing. [....]

Treasury launched its most ambitious assault with this new weapon on a tiny bank in Macau. That bank, Banco Delta Asia (BDA), caught the department’s attention in 2003 for doing a hefty amount of business with North Korea. Classic sanctions, such as freezing individual bank accounts and forbidding commercial activity, had succeeded in isolating Pyongyang, but BDA, among others, helped the country stream its profits from illegal arms sales, money laundering and counterfeiting into the international financial system. In the most notable revelation of the book, Zarate recounts a chain reaction that no one predicted. Within two weeks of its September 2005 designation as a primary money laundering concern under Section 311, a hemorrhaging BDA shuttered all of its North Korean accounts and handed its administration to the Macau government. Fearing the North Korean taint, banks in financial hubs worldwide, and even North Korean ally China, ended business with North Korea.

The Kim regime initially dismissed the designation as yet another feckless sanction. But as its lifelines collapsed, it panicked. North Korean leaders refused to return to the six-party nuclear talks until Treasury, in Zarate’s words, removed “the scarlet letter from their reputation.” By designating BDA for its North Korean dealings, the United States exposed a raft of illegal North Korean financial activity, from money laundering to drug trafficking, that no bank wanted to be associated with.

The designation bought the United States real leverage with North Korea. But just when it could have waited for Pyongyang to flail its way into concessions, the administration folded. Zarate bitterly recalls watching from his new perch at the National Security Council as, without any North Korean compromise, the State Department badgered Treasury into reversing the action so as to kick-start the talks. By trying to “put the genie back in the bottle,” Zarate argues, Washington undermined its credibility and “cashed in on BDA too soon.” [Washington Post]

This sounds like the most engrossing read a person can possibly have without having to clear one’s browser history afterward. In fact, it’s exactly the strategy behind H.R. 1771, one of the worthier projects this Congress has taken on–and 1771 would be far more comprehensive and deadly than an action against one dirty little bank in Macau.

Hat tip to a reader.

I can’t stand watching this, but I hope millions of others can.

Sorry, I’m a father, and I couldn’t even make it through this trailer. Reading this has already traumatized me enough to make me start this site and document these places, and honestly, that’s already as much as I can take.

If you can’t stand it either, then send it to a friend. Until this ends.

“Escape from North Korea” Update

A PASSAGE IN “ESCAPE FROM NORTH KOREA” ties very recent events on Capitol Hill to a couple of fiskings I’d been saving for a special occasion. The update is here; scroll down.

“Escape from North Korea” Update

Here.

Escape from North Korea: An Incremental Review

Nov. 7, 2012.  Early in Melanie Kirkpatrick’s Escape from North Korea, you start to find powerful phrases that stay with you — phrases that make you stop reading and chew on them, to extract the full significance of some aspect of life in another reality.  I couldn’t help quoting two of them.  The first is illuminating:

So accustomed are North Koreans to the lack of light that when I asked a North Korean who had settled in an American city if there was anything she missed from home, she replied, “the darkness.”

The second is ghastly:

“I keep thinking, maybe he would still be alive if we hadn’t buried him,” the young man told the reporters in Washington. He didn’t want his name used, for fear of retribution against his family in North Korea. But he told us the name of the man he buried, and I record it here: Kim Young-jin.

On a related note, I saw this quote in a link from another review that registered in my comments:

Interestingly, Haggard’s research is quoted at multiple points in the text, while Stanton does not merit a mention by the author.

Oh, my.  This is more than just a passive-aggressive blog post; it’s a life lesson:  Just as a reader shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, a reviewer shouldn’t judge a book before he actually reads the last chapter (beginning with its title).  Let the rewrite commence!

Nov. 29, 2012

Another quote I can’t resist giving you, about one of Kirkpatrick’s interviews with an escaped North Korean:

After our own trip to the buffet, we began the interview. The subject of our conversation was starvation.

Further on, there is this passage:

A commonplace observation of North Koreans who reached China was that Chinese dogs ate better than North Korean humans. The hungry refugees marveled at watching dogs devour scraps that were more nutritious than anything they had seen for years. They also marveled at seeing dogs. In North Korea, most of the dogs had been eaten.

One senses that Kirkpatrick longed to write this book not only because she had a story to tell, but because she had the literary impulse in her to tell it well in clear, high-impact prose.

Kirkpatrick’s second chapter is about religion in North Korea, a topic she introduces early because it has two levels of impact on the subject matter.  You already know, of course, that religion motivates most of the underground railroad’s conductors, but the complete ignorance of North Koreans about Christianity means that their first contact with it is a particularly strong shock to their systems.  It must be especially so for people who’ve broken with a lifetime of spiritual indoctrination, and the regime must understand that.

Kirkpatrick closes her chapter with an anecdote about my friend Tim Peters, and it speaks volumes about modern South Korean society:

In Seoul, Peters made his pitch to an assembly of divinity students at Chongshin University. Chongshin’s famous divinity school was founded in Pyongyang in 1901 and relocated south during the Korean War. Today, its graduates disperse to the four corners of the world to preach the Gospel. One would think that the school’s roots in the North would give it a special interest in reaching out to North Koreans. That was not what Peters found.

Peters described his interaction with the students at Chongshin. “Who’s going to India?” he asked the assembled seminarians. Lots of hands shot up. India is a popular spot for missionary work, and the South Korean students clearly were enthusiastic about the prospect of working there.

“Then I asked, ‘Who’s helping North Koreans?’ ” At this point in his story, Peters paused and looked around him. It was if he still had the prospective missionaries in his sight and was waiting to count the raised hands.

Finally, he answered his own question. “Nothing.”

In Chapter 3, we have another anecdote to file under “things we already knew” — in this case, that too many of those who represent us abroad are Nevilles Chamberlain without umbrellas to protect them from the disapproving scowls of the angels.  Listen to Evans Revere tell Kirkpatrick the story of some of the first North Korean defectors to show up at the doorstep of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, and try to find a good reason not to loathe him:  

Revere went to the front entrance. After his questions in Mandarin also failed to elicit a response, something about the two men prompted him to try Korean, which he also spoke. The men responded with big smiles and a torrent of words. “I had a hard time at first placing their accent,” Revere said. “But then it dawned on me. I couldn’t quite believe it, but they were from North Korea.”

If the North Koreans had been soldiers or officials with important information to impart, Revere said, the United States might have been able to figure out a way to extract them from China. But they were just farmers and not worth diplomatic intervention, and they didn’t know enough to ask for political asylum.

Nor, for the sake of two just-farmers, did Evans see that it was “worth” prompting them to ask, although it was mighty sweet of him to give them a ride to the train station.  Do you suppose he stuffed a dollar bill in each of their shirt pockets and wished them the best of luck evading the ChiCom police all the way to Hong Kong?

Interesting observations about music in Chapter 3:

“No dictatorship can tolerate jazz,” he said at the time of that Cold War visit. “It is the first sign of a return to freedom.”

Well, maybe one day I’ll “get” jazz.  As to Richard Claydermann — I can go no further than, “To each his own.”  (On the other hand, the subversive messages that Prokofiev and Shostakovitch passed under the noses of Stalin’s censors have always been clear enough for me.)  Now this would be a hardship:

The North Korean regime also bans individual composers whose biographies it deems dangerous. Among them is Sergei Rachmaninoff, who wrote some of the twentieth century’s greatest piano music. Rachmaninoff is verboten because he fled his native Russia after the 1917 Revolution and settled in the United States.

Really?  But then, his music is openly sentimental, and sentiment is a dangerous thing to allow people to feel.  (Irony — I’m listening to Dvorak’s Ninth as I write this, and I don’t know of another classical piece that evokes freedom more.  Maybe I just associate it with the open, sagebrush-scented landscapes between the Black Hills and the Badlands I so often crossed in my childhood, but I doubt that’s all there is to it.)

(Update:  iTunes just shuffled to “Fanfare for the Common Man.”)

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One of the best things about books like “Escape from North Korea” and “Nothing to Envy” is that for a few minutes, they make us think about North Korea as a humanitarian problem, and maybe even think about the diplomatic implications of dealing with people who place no value on human life.  I urge you to watch this extraordinarily powerful ten-minute speech by my good friend, Adrian Hong, in an event about Kirkpatrick’s book (she’s sitting to his right).  The speech struck a chord with The Washington Post‘s Max Fischer, which is itself a victory in a delaying action against those who sell out the North Korean people for a few promises that would surely be broken within a year.

After having had to correct his online review, Adam Cathcart swings at Hong and misses again, this time in the comment thread to Fischer’s post.  Cathcart begins by trying to associate Hong with “an ambitious agenda embracing the Arabic world,” falsely linking Hong to a completely unrelated entity that also happens to have “Pegasus” in its name.  He then twists Hong’s use of the word “preemptively” — in a context that Hong most likely meant in the diplomatic or humanitarian sense — to build a straw man (Cathcart:  “All these nascent rebels need is a small (to use Hong’s word) “preemptive’ push, the Korean Workers’ Party apparatus will tumble faster than you can say ‘nuclear Fuehrerbunker'”).

That’s a stretch.  In a lengthy piece in Foreign Policy, which Cathcart links, Hong advocates nothing more aggressive than broadcasting to the North Korean people, along with financial, diplomatic, and humanitarian pressure on the regime.  Hong mentions the possibility of an internal uprising, as plenty of other observers across the political spectrum have, but says, “[I]t is far better to have a coordinated, controlled landing, at the time of one’s choosing, instead of waiting for the worst to happen at any moment.”  If Hong has ever advocated what Cathcart obviously wants the Putinjugend trolls on that comment thread to infer, Cathcart ought to cite stronger evidence.

On the other hand, if Cathcart ever wants to challenge an actual advocate of a Libyan Solution for North Korea, he doesn’t need to imagine one, because I’m right here.  If there’s broad agreement that North Korea’s regime is inherently unstable, then the case of Syria shows what happens when you abdicate your nation’s interest in influencing the course of history.  As recently as 2010, no serious thinker believed a revolution was imminent in Libya or Syria.  Nor did anyone advocate sacrificing “engagement” with either regime to build relations with their disorganized and oppressed populations — populations that would soon produce militias, guerrilla armies, and a number of terrorists (in Syria, a growing number).  I certainly won’t defend the way this administration handled issues like embassy security or public communications in Libya, but its policy of building early alliances with the rebels while avoiding a ground war was sound, and stands a far better chance of producing a good outcome than our passive policy in Syria.

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Dec. 6, 2012.  Here is a review, published in the Christian Science Monitor, and an interview with the author on National Public Radio.

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Jan 2, 2013.  Last fall, the Hands-Off-North-Korea gang called for its smelling salts after the House passed the North Korea Refugee Adoption Act. The bill would have required the State Department to “develop a comprehensive strategy for facilitating the adoption of North Korean children by United States citizens” and, when possible, “assist in the family reunification of … orphaned North Korean children.” Some of these children are kkotjaebi, children who are orphaned and abandoned inside North Korea and managed to flee across the border on their own, but most are the children of North Korean mothers and Chinese men. These kids are conceived in circumstances that vary from consensual marriage to forcible rape, and sometimes in the gray area between the two. Nor do these children fit into either nationality, which is never a good thing in that part of Asia. We already know what North Korea does with racially impure babies. As Kirkpatrick relates:

The South Korean government debriefs every refugee who arrives in Seoul and reports its findings in an annual publication. Many of the refugees have spent time in North Korean prisons, and the section on pregnant women is a parade of horrors. The matter- of-fact, staccato language of the government report only heightens the atrocity:

“Gave birth to a baby . . . but they put vinyl cover [over the baby’s face] and left it to die, accusing the baby of [being] Chinese.”

“Gave birth to a baby on way to hard labor. Baby died.”

“Hospital aborted baby at seven-month pregnancy because she had lived with a Chinese man.”

“The agents forced her to run one hundred laps around a track because she had a Chinese seed in her. She collapsed after sixty laps and the baby was aborted.”

If China had not sent these women back to North Korea, their babies would merely face lifetimes lived in fear and without education, medical care, or a future. Because their mothers (and sometimes their fathers) are in China illegally, and because their fathers may not claim them, many of these kids become orphans. Chapter 5 of Escape from North Korea explains all of the different categories of North Korean and half-North Korean children whose lives and futures are scarred in very different ways by China’s cruelty to them.  I can’t summarize it better here, so I won’t try. Read the book. That one chapter is worth the price.

Kirkpatrick finds interesting subjects to help her tell her story and help you feel it on a human level, but on an academic level, the scale of this problem had already been documented exhaustively.  I’d recommend you begin with this extensive and detailed report from Human Rights WatchThe Christian Science Monitor, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, and Refugees International, which in 2008 cited a South Korean NGO’s claim that there may be 10,000 “stateless children born to north Korean refugee women and Chinese men” who were born in the preceding decade and in need of assistance.  The evidence for the problem was never seriously in dispute until Congress finally got around to doing something about it this year — thereby causing hurt feelings at the Ministry for People’s Security and Foreign Policy in Focus — by trying to “facilitate the immediate care, family reunification, and, if necessary and appropriate, the adoption of any eligible North Korean children living outside North Korea as de jure or de facto stateless refugees.”

Someone named Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, in this fine representation of FPIF’s typical level of scholarship and class, elegantly translates “necessary and appropriate” as “baby scooping.” Dobbs’s own experience as an adoptee obviously wasn’t favorable, and while I don’t know what she went through as a child, it’s clear that something has driven her toward a bitterness that defies logic. For example, Dobbs thinks allowing Americans to adopt Korean children was “a tool used to expand U.S. neocolonial power under the guise of benevolence during the Cold War,” and that the new bill’s proponents are “naïve Hollywood stars and ambitious neoconservatives.” (It is widely known that these groups often rub elbows at bar mitzvahs and e-meter auditing parties. Presumably, Dobbs believes the European Parliament is also made up of neoconservatives and neocolonialists.) Without citing a single named source who appears to have direct knowledge of the facts, Dobbs denies that there is a problem of stateless orphans of North Korean parents in China, period. Also, we have always been at war with Eastasia. In the end, I’m left with more sorrow for Dobbs than anger.

Christine Hong doesn’t care for the bill, either. Remember her? Back in 2010, she bitterly denounced the visit of a U.S. aircraft carrier to the Yellow Sea. You may also remember that this was pretty much the only U.S. response to North Korea’s sinking of a South Korean warship and killing of 46 sailors, for which Hong’s disapproval of which was lost in a cloud of nuance and angst. This can happen to folk who love peace more than you and me.

(Both Dobbs and Hong are members of Christine Ahn’s Korea Policy Institute.  You all remember Christine Ahn, right?)

In this long piece at 38 North, Hong calls the bill “an outdated portrait of on-the-ground conditions and distorted premises” based on “a dangerous fiction,” but later insists that China has solved this non-existent problem. Her sources for this? One unnamed aid worker of unknown affiliation and “[a] Yanji municipal social welfare officer with the People’s Policy Bureau. Seriously. (I also reached out to a well-known aid worker with up-to-date information about North Korean and half-North Korean kids in China. He insists that China most certainly has not solved the problem.)  And 38 North actually published this? Aside from it being disjointed, rambling, intellectually sloppy, poorly researched, and contrary to the overwhelming weight of credible evidence, I’m sure it’s an perfectly fine contribution to our discourse on this topic.

I should have also said “moot,” because this week, the Senate passed a version that bypasses Hong’s semantic argument that these children are “not North Korean, not refugees, and not orphans.” The Senate bill now includes “North Korean-origin children residing in other countries or children of one North Korean parent residing outside North Korea who are fleeing persecution or are living as de jure or de facto stateless persons.”  Happy now, Christine? Somehow, I doubt it.  Really, her biggest problem with this bill seems to be the way its advocates paint a “hellish picture” of North Korea’s expendable people and their children.

Naturally, Hong ends up arguing that the answer is more food aid to North Korea, or rather, to the regime that would have us believe hat droughts and floods have ruined 19 consecutive harvests, exclusively in North Korea, except in Pyongyang. (Hong blames North Korea’s hunger on politicians and activists supporting this bill, and of course, sanctions.) But deciding to give North Korea aid is one thing; getting North Korea to accept it is another. It rejected one offer of food aid in 2009, possibly over U.S. demands to monitor the distribution of the aid, and then expelled most American aid workers from private NGOs.  Although the U.S. government has regularly expressed that it was ready to resume food aid to North Korea, it took until last year to get North Korea to agree to take it, only to renege on an agreement that would have provided food aid in exchange for a moratorium on North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests. The U.S. also demanded essential requirements for monitoring to make sure it got to those who needed it most. The conditions were less restrictive than what the U.N. might have demanded in, say, Sudan or anywhere else, but Hong criticizes even those minimal safeguards as heavy-handed U.S. demands for “unprecedented access.”

Regardless of the terms on which North Korea would accept it free of charge, food is far below the nose cone of the Kim Dynasty’s hierarchy of fiscal priorities; the regime spent enough on just its latest one rocket launch to feed the entire country for a year.  It’s pretty difficult to escape the conclusion that the regime had decided to keep its people hungry (or rather, certain classes of them). Yet however inadvertently, Hong stumbles over a part of the truth — North Korean orphans in China are a small part of the humanitarian problem here. After all, very few North Korean orphans will ever make it that far. North Korean orphans are in China are just the biggest humanitarian problem we can begin to solve now, in some small way.

Of course, this lame duck session of Congress ends Thursday, which means that this bill could still die in a conference committee or on the President’s desk.  That means that the likes of Dobbs and Hong can go right back to paving other peoples’ road to Hell with their own intentions, which I’ll let you characterize as you see fit.  If you’re having difficulty making those judgments, then Escape from North Korea is a book you have to read.

UK production company making animated feature of Nothing to Envy.

Nothing to Envy was a terrific book – maybe the best book about North Korea I’ve read – but … animated?  Well, yes.  

From the production company:

THE FILM

Directed by BAFTA-winning filmmaker Andy Glynne, Nothing to Envy is a new animated feature length film about life inside one of the most impenetrable and brutal regimes in the world – North Korea. Told through the true stories of defectors, this film will combine testimony with rich and vivid animation to provide an unprecedented insight into the lives of ordinary North Koreans.

THE CAMPAIGN

On October 7th Mosaic Films launched an eight-week online crowdfunding campaign to raise initial production funds for the film, and will work to engage a global audience in the issues affecting people in North Korea today. Contributors to the crowdfunding campaign will be acknowledged on the film’s online supporters wall (www.nothingtoenvy.net/funders-wall) and will have an option to select from a number of supporter ‘perks’ including exclusive behind the scenes access, a digital film download, or even a ticket to a red carpet screening. See more about our online campaign: http://www.indiegogo.com/nothingtoenvy

THE BOOK

Nothing to Envy is based on the award-winning book of the same title written by LA Times journalist Barbara Demick (http://nothingtoenvy.com/about-barbara-demick/). In this book Demick provides an unparalleled insight into life of ordinary North Koreans and the hardships they face. It is a comprehensive account, revealing profound narratives of romantic relationships, interpersonal conflicts and stories of triumph and despair – all set against the backdrop of a brutal regime.

THE FILMMAKER

Mosaic Films director Andy Glynne (http://nothingtoenvy.net/director-andy-glynne/) has won numerous awards for his work in this genre (winning a BAFTA in 2010), and has directed and produced numerous animated documentaries, including the award-winning series Animated Minds, and the more recent Seeking Refuge for BBC. His experience in this genre, and his skill in storytelling, sets the stage for a unique and impressive film.

INTERNATIONAL SUPPORT

Nothing To Envy is supported by a number of international organizations including: Amnesty InternationalHRNK: The Committee for Human Rights in North KoreaChristian Solidarity WorldwideLiNK: The North Korea Human Rights CrisisNKnet: Network for North Korea Democracy and Human Rights and Daily NK.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

During our initial launch we are seeking to create a buzz around the project and create as much hype as possible. This is where you and your university Amnesty International society becomes a vital part of this process. We are asking you to spread awareness of our project – tell your lecturers and fellow students, promote our twitter/blog/crowdfunding website, absolutely anything that may be able to help this cause.

RESOURCES

Press Pack – Download Here: http://nothingtoenvy.net/press/

Campaign Launch Video and Nothing to Envy Website: http://nothingtoenvy.net/

Crowdfunding Campaign: http://www.indiegogo.com/nothingtoenvy

Follow the film on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/NothingToEnvyTheFilm

Follow the film on Twitter: https://twitter.com/nothingtoenvy (handle: @nothingtoenvy)

You can see sometimes-grouchy OFK reader Aidan Foster-Carter and Amnesty’s Rajiv Narayan at this launch event. Narayan is a regular presence at North Korea events, and notwithstanding all the mean things I say about the Human Rights Industry, it’s good to see his organization take an interest in this issue. Anyway, it looks interesting. Demick is one of the best reporters who has ever covered North Korea, so I don’t doubt that the film’s criticisms will be well documented, factual, and objective — and therefore powerful.

NKHR Film Festival, NKDB/US-Korea Institute Seminar

(seminar info updated below)
NKHR Film Festival logo

NKnet is hosting a North Korean Human Rights International Film Festival in Seoul on November 10-11, 2011.  Let this also serve as the official OFK announcement that NKnet has a new English-language website ready for your consumption.

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The US-Korea Institute at SAIS and the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights are joining forces again for a seminar in Washington, DC, soon:

Building a Strategy on North Korean Human Rights: International Perspectives

with Keynote Address by Dr. Kim Moon-soo,
Governor, Gyeonggi Province, Republic of Korea

November 15, 2011
9 AM ““ 2:30 PM
Kenney Auditorium
1740 Massachusetts Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20036

The US-Korea Institute at SAIS and the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights will convene a seminar on November 15, 2011 that will explore both the status of the human rights and humanitarian challenges in North Korea and international efforts to address them. Featuring a keynote address by Dr. Kim Moon-soo, Governor of Gyeonggi Province in South Korea.

Agenda coming soon.

See link to RSVP.

Update:

Wow, looks like they will have an A-List of speakers. The page for the event now has a link to a PDF with the following:

AGENDA

8:30″“9:00 Registration

9:00″“9:15 Welcoming Remarks

9:15″“9:30 Opening Address
Han Duk-soo, Ambassador to the United States, Republic of Korea

9:30″“10:00 Keynote Address
Kim Moon-soo, Governor, Gyeonggi Province, Republic of Korea

10:15″“12:00 Session I: Status of Human Rights and Humanitarian Efforts in North Korea
Chair: Suzanne Scholte, Executive Director, North Korea Freedom Coalition

Panelists:
“¢   Lee Ja-eun, Researcher, Database Center for North Korean Human Rights
“¢   Lee Won-woong, Professor, Kwandong University
“¢   Randall Spadoni, Country Program Manager (North Korea), International Programs, World Vision

12:00″“12:30 Lunch

12:30 ““ 14:00   Session II: Developing a Human Rights Strategy
Chair: Jae H. Ku, Director, US-Korea Institute at SAIS, Johns Hopkins University

Panelists:
“¢   Gisella Gori, Senior Political Advisor, Political, Security and Development Section, European Union External Action
“¢   Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director, U.S. Committee on North Korean Human Rights
“¢   Ben Rogers, East Asia Team Leader, Christian Solidarity Worldwide
“¢   Kang Cheol-hwan, President, North Korean Strategy Center

14:00 ““ 14:15   Closing Remarks
Kim Sang-hun, Chairman, Board of Directors, Database Center for North Korean Human Rights